By Leigh Morrow
Women on the island of Okinawa, in Japan, have learned the secret to longevity. Living longer and healthier lives than any other women on the planet, with many reaching centenarian status, these women have secrets to their longevity that extend beyond a rich diet of plant based foods and an active lifestyle, with many tending to their gardens well into their late 90’s. They have no secret potion or super-enhanced DNA. Their longevity comes from two things that all of us in North America could be tapping into for a longer, healthier and happier life. First is the power of ikigai.
Okinawan women strongly follow their ikigai – one’s reason for being, or one’s purpose in life. While there is no direct English translation, the term embodies the idea of happiness in living. Older Okinawa’s can readily articulate the reason they get up in the morning. Their purpose-imbued lives gives them clear roles of responsibility and feelings of being needed well into their 100s. Okinawa’s younger generations pay homage to their elders, recognizing the preciousness of these members of their tribes, fluent in the disappearing dialect languages and age-old traditions.
Older women are celebrated and feel obligated to pass their wisdom on to the younger females, thus filling their lives purpose outside themselves and service to their communities. This stands in stark contrast to our North American culture, in which women’s value in midlife and beyond is, put politely, unappreciated.
Once in North America, midlife women were the next generation to raise the grandchildren, as our sons and daughters foraged for food. Today our grandchildren—if we have any at all—are more likely to live half a world away than over in the next township. Where in other generations, young people revered their elders, sought their advice and wisdom, and listened to their stories with appreciation and interest, our free-range kids make their own decisions and seldom look to their middle-aged mothers for input. North American women in midlife and beyond, often find themselves dispensable, if not invisible, and collectively silenced. With modern day “expiry dates” based on our youth and reproductive ability, we enter our later years, searching for something to fulfill us, and often for many, our “What now?” whispers. This is where having an ikigai, could not just extend our years but bring life to those years we have ahead.
While Okinawan women may be following a life of bliss in old age, it is a direction they have been led towards from the time they were little girls. For many North American women, our life purpose has never been allowed to grow, or even be nurtured, as we attempt to balance the North American norm and necessity of work in and outside of the home, combined with motherhood, marriage and for most, the hours of commute in between.
Fueling passion and purpose, finding one’s ikigai, often requires deep enquiry and a lengthy period of self-reflection. Unpacking the word ikigai and its symbols we see three themes revealed. Make a list of your values, the things you like to do, and things you are good at. The cross section of these three is your ikigai. But knowing your ikigai is one thing, you now need an outlet. Ikigai is purpose in action. Ikigai is feeling your work makes a difference in people’s lives.
How often in North American life can we say our work makes a difference in people’s lives?
As a reporter for most of my life, I can totally relate to ikigai. I got most of my work “rush” from knowing I made a small but measurable difference in someone’s life by cutting through the bureaucratic red tape, or showing tax payers a real boon doggle of an idea. Even if we are moving through a dark place, if we move with purpose, towards a strong or clear goal, we can be seen as experiencing ikigai.
The second lesson from those old wisdom-keepers on the island of Okinawa is community, or a tribe of like-minded women. Having a group, no matter how small, of people who know your back story, and care about you, amounts to a special kind of health insurance. This is where belonging to a tribe, something foreign to North American society, plays heavily. I call it best friend-ology. If you have even one best friend whom you can trust and count on, and who understands, hold tight to that friendship as it is your life ring to longevity.
Ikigai and the idea of belonging to community work; they demonstrate how North American ideals of eternal beauty and the isolation and segregation of our elders will never get us to nirvana. We ask “How do I live a longer and happier life?” The answer may well be “Okinawa-style,” with purpose, passion and sisterhood.
Leigh Morrow, is co-author of “Just Push Play-on Midlife” (www.jppmidlife.com) and a Vancouver writer who operates Casa Mihale, a vacation rental in the quaint ocean-front community of San Agustinillo, Mexico. Her house can be viewed and rented.